2013 crash cost Dario Franchitti more than his racing career

Curt Cavin, curt.cavin@indystar.com

Five specific weeks of Dario Franchitti’s memory are lost. Words he tries to fetch sometimes don’t come. He draws blanks on the names of people he surely knows, and even some of their faces aren’t as recognizable as they once were.

The losses are lingering effects from the multiple head injuries Franchitti suffered in his racing career. But the Scotsman forced into retirement after a crash in Houston in the fall of 2013 accepts his lot.

“To me, it’s a little thing,” he told The Indianapolis Star during a quiet moment last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I’m sitting here having this chat, sitting at the Speedway.

“To me, I’m so lucky to be in this position. The other stuff is minor inconveniences.”

Franchitti turns 42 Tuesday, and three Indianapolis 500 victories have earned him royalty status in these parts. Next to Helio Castroneves, Franchitti is the most recognizable and revered champion of this era, and he wears the nobility well, like the checkered flag ring proudly displayed on his finger (it’s the 2010 500 ring).

Franchitti is reserved and guarded by nature, so talk of these mental struggles is difficult. But he recently detailed his challenges to his hometown newspaper, The Scotsman. For one, his concentration fades as he tires.

“My decision-making isn’t as razor sharp as it was,” he told the Edinburgh paper. “I will repeat myself; my memory’s not great, I forget words. I always bump into people that I’ve met, not great friends, but … (people) I’ve known and I won’t recognize them. It can be embarrassing at times.

“That sort of stuff happens, but it beats the alternative. I could have died.”

Franchitti told The Star he hasn’t suffered headaches with this concussion, and he hasn’t had vertigo symptoms like the night years ago when he sped a Rolex 24 sports car through the 31-degree corner banking at Daytona International Speedway.

“You’d go, ‘Whoa!’ ” he said of the inner-ear sensation. “Vertigo is a horrible thing.”

Franchitti jokes that forgetting names was a problem even before his first big accident. In fact, it takes a conversation like the one he’s having on this day at IMS to remember he even has a problem.

Most of the time he looks and feels fine, enjoying the finer, less-stressful points of being a retired champion, like having dinner with Mario Andretti and sharing stories with Rick Mears.

“It’s not something keeping me awake at night,” he said of those minor inconveniences. “But yeah, it’s part of it. It’s there, but it’s not. Just little things you notice.”

Franchitti doesn’t remember the Houston accident or others like it in his career. He remembers attending a wedding in Portland, Ore., a couple of weeks before the crash, but he told The Scotsman “there’s nothing there” after that. He described the memory loss as “a big, black hole.”

It shouldn’t be like that. Franchitti was driving through the sweeping corner around Houston’s iconic Astrodome on the last lap of the doubleheader when he came upon Takuma Sato’s slowing car. Disaster happened quicker than Franchitti could blink, but somehow he turned the car enough to avoid hitting Sato squarely. Sato wasn’t hurt, but Franchitti suffered a broken back and ankle. The ankle injury still nags him.

Through recovery, Franchitti has carried on with the dignity that defines him. As he realized, retirement was already near, a Hall of Fame career long since assured. He left IndyCar with 31 race victories and four season championships.

Franchitti is enjoying his role as adviser to Ganassi Racing, coaching 20-year-old Sage Karam and supporting Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Sebastian Saavedra.

Tightly wound as a competitor, Franchitti is at peace post-accident. That alone is something to celebrate.

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